The Incredible Visual Skills of Cristiano Ronaldo

ronaldo_ball_203_203x152I have previously written about the importance of visual processing for athletic performance. I just came across a video demonstrating the unbelievable (I mean that literally) visual skills of a world class athlete, via the excellent Axon Sports blog.

In the video, sports scientists test the visual processing of Christiano Ronaldo, one of the worlds best soccer players. (By the way, Ronaldo was a top contender for my world’s greatest athlete.)

The video focuses on two essential elements of sports vision: the skill to quickly gather relevant visual data to know what is going on, and the ability to interpret that data to predict what it likely to happen next. The video makes clear that the skill of top players in this regard have been developed to an absurd level.

Check this out, and if you only want to watch a little, skip to 9:30 in the vid.

Gimme a f***ing break. Did he just get lucky? Could he see in the dark? Does he have echolocation? Is it the hair gel? I don’t get it.

In case you didn’t watch the vid, here’s a brief summary with some of my own thoughts.

In the first segment, the scientists tried to get some insight into how Ronaldo gathers relevant visual information as he plays soccer. To do that, he was fitted with an eye tracking gadget. Then he was asked to engage in a game of keep away with Andy Anash, a less gifted player (by definition I suppose) who also wore some eye trackers. After the game, the scientists analyzed who was looking where as they executed their soccer skills.

They found that Ronaldo looked more to his opponent’s hips and the space around him, which allowed him to determine where his opponent could move and possible escape routes. By contrast, Anash spent more time looking at Ronald’s feet and the ball, which as you can see from the video, move so fast and magically that they are more likely to be hypnotic than informative. (Ronaldo would fake more than once per second – ridiculous.) So it seems that Ronaldo was better at gathering visual info that was relevant to his task.

In the second test, the scientists tried to measure Ronaldo’s ability to anticipate ball flight based on limited information.

In ball sports, you must move to the ball before it arrives. Not surprisingly, elite performers in ball sports demonstrate superior abilities to anticipate ball flight. For example, in baseball, you need to decide whether and where to swing well before the ball reaches the plate. Therefore your ability to make contact depends on predicting ball flight based on its initial trajectory and the body language of the pitcher. And the body language info is hugely important. When the pitcher’s body is hidden behind a screen, the hitter basically can’t hit a thing.

With this in mind, the scientists tested Ronaldo’s ability to anticipate ball flight on a corner kick. To do this, they had him try to strike a ball into the goal of after the lights had been turned off mid flight.

Watching Ronaldo’s performance in this regard really made me understand why I don’t score on corner kicks very often. And to be honest, I think he must have been able to see that ball at least a little bit. C’mon.

But I will confess that my own experience playing squash has convinced me that some players really have amazing skills of anticipation. When your opponent is reading you like a book it is really surprising. And very horrible as well. Here’s a squash video from a very recent tournament showing an awesome rally with two or three shots where the players move well before the ball is struck.

And some nice air guitar work from Ramy.

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10 Responses to The Incredible Visual Skills of Cristiano Ronaldo

  1. great example of Bayesian prediction/ decision-making theory in action, todd. as neuroscientist Daniel Wolpert explains it here our brains have an astounding capability to produce complex and adaptable movement in an ever-changing environment, much of this prediction accuracy is based on the quality of incoming sensory feedback as well as prior experiences learned from practice and performance: “As we go around, we learn about statistics of the world and lay that down,” said Wolpert. “But we also learn about how noisy our own sensory apparatus is and then combine those in a real Bayesian way.” Wolpert calls this process our “neural simulator” which constantly and subconsciously makes predictions of how our movements will influence our surroundings. “The fundamental idea is you want to plan your movements so as to minimize the negative consequence of the noise”

    it would be interesting to see the results of program that involved training eye movements with larger movements to quiet the noise of the incoming sensory feedback.

  2. Insane!!!

    I’d like to see something like this done on haptic/tactile sensitivity.

    For axample, grapplers use haptic sensitivity in the same way that other sports use visual processing as seen here. Basically, grapplers are “connected” to each other, so the pressure exerted on your body by your opponent transmits information about your opponents intentions in the same way that Ronaldo uses visual information to anticipate the movements of players and ball trajectories.

    Unfortunately, research on haptic sensitivity as it relates to sports performance is pretty thin. I’ve never really been able to find anything on it.

  3. The currently unanswerable question – how much is this his greater ability to calculate where thh ball will be and how much is his greater ability to trust his ability to calculate where the ball will be?

  4. Glad to see attention paid to squash as a sport requiring outstanding movement. Ramy Ashour is absolutely the best right now and deserves more attention.

    Squash isn’t as complex as soccer, although I think more physically demanding, which makes Ronaldo and Messi that much more amazing in terms of processing power.

    • Hi Brock,

      I totally agree, squash is not quite as complex, because there is only one opponent and limited potential positions. But it is brutal.

  5. What this study really speaks to is the athlete’s knowledge of the game; knowledge of what details to pay attention to–athletic prowess isn’t just a matter of investing 10,000 hours or of having good agility or good visual skill b/c you can waste a lot of time paying attention to the wrong (for that particular sport) visual cues. Matthew Syed illustrates this point in his book Bounce.

  6. Interesting article,

    Comment: It seems like there could be different forms of spacial awareness in different sports. For instance, it would be interesting to see how a cyclist’s ability to read road conditions in relation to their own speed may differ from the information processing of a soccer player.

    Question: Do you think the ability to focus on an opponent’s body, rather than the ball is something that is the result of his information processing skills, or an aspect of those skills (i.e. something he’s learned over time)?


    – Armi

    • Hi Armi,

      I agree that spacial awareness is probably a specific skill.

      I think he must have learned over time to focus to on his opponent’s body. Trial after trial eventually showed that info about the opponent’s hips is a key data point for predicting where he will go.

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